The Book of the CourtierThere really was a Camelot. But it was in Italy, Urbino in northern Italy to be exact, in the 1500s. Perched on top of a couple of hills in the region Le Marche, Urbino was ruled by the Montefeltro family. From 1444 to 1482 Federigo de Montefeltro skillfully steered his tiny domain through the rough storms of Italian Renaissance realpolitik. Federigo was a successful soldier of fortune yet maintained one of the largest libraries in Italy, spoke Latin, read Aristotle, helped orphans and in general earned the love of his people. He built a beautiful fairy-tale palace and had Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca decorate it. His less fortunate son Guidobaldo inherited this charming and well-run dukedom. Guidobaldo married the cultivated Elisabetta of the Gonzaga family from Mantua. He was an invalid and not made of his father’s stern military stuff. A victim of the brilliant military campaigns of Cesare Borgia that so enchanted Machiavelli, Guidobaldo was temporarily deposed. When the Borgias (Cesare and his father Pope Alexander VI) died, the people of Urbino rose up, drove out Borgia’s soldiers and cheered Guidobaldo and Elisabetta upon their return.For the next few years the court of Elisabetta and Guidobaldo was the most beautiful, enlightened, genteel place on earth. They attracted musicians, scholars and artists. Conversation was honed into a fine art. Into this paradise strode our Lancelot, Baldasare Castiglione, a diplomat descended from minor Italian nobility. He loved Elisabetta, but as far as we know the devotion remained platonicIt is because of Castiglione that we believe we have a sense of what the court of Montefeltro was like, or at least how they would have like to have been remembered. His “The Book of the Courtier” (Il Cortigiano) painstakingly analyzes the attributes of a gentleman through conversations (probably highly idealized) of refined visitors to Urbino. It’s a long, slow, but thoroughly enjoyable book. It is a window into the renaissance mind. It does not describe how the Italians of the sixteenth century were, Machiavelli and Cellini are probably more useful there. But it tells how they wanted to be. The book was read and studied by nobility all over Europe.It’s also how I wanted them to be. Urbino is one of my favorite places. It’s a crowded student city now. But on a quiet morning when only a few people are about and the sun has made its way over the hills from the Adriatic, I can imagine that I can see the ghosts of Elisabetta and Guidobaldo walking on the cobbled streets outside their beautiful palace. Fussy, snobbish, yet kind and gentle Castiglione and his wonderful book help make that fantasy more real.
What Fun!Jamie Smith and Jef Mallett have done a terrific job of explaining the complex (OK, weird) culture of bicycle road cycling. They have done this with such good humor that I must warn you, do not read this book while drinking milk. At some point in the book you will not be able to contain yourself and you will make a mess laughing out loud.Writer Smith takes the reader step by step through the equipment, time consuming training, eating habits and the rest of the near obsessive life style successful bike racing entails. He then segues to cycle racing tactics, the inevitable crashes and how a day at a bicycle race is structured. Along the way he translates the odd language of cycling, clearly defining each word that would be foreign to the person new to the sport.The book’s purpose is to be a guide for those who want to understand that strange fellow with the beer cooler strapped to his head and oddly-shaped shaved legs. He also gives out lots of sage and valuable advice to racers, such as “Another important and powerful action is to find and thank the sponsors for footing the bill for the event [race]. If they are not on-site, then each roadie should write a letter of thanks within the following month.” Gosh, if every racer did that, we’d have a rich racing calendar that would make the bike-mad Belgians green with envy.Jef Mallett, the award-winning creator of the nationally syndicated cartoon “Frazz”, illustrates Smith’s first-rate text with lots of wonderful pictures. As a roadie himself, Mallett understands cycling, and his cartoons are hilarious because they are spot-on true. Smith gives a detailed explanation of what happens to a rider when he doesn’t eat enough. The crippling weakness that occurs when the body can no longer supply the needed food to the muscles is called the “bonk”. Mallett’s cartoon of a blank- faced, starved rider sitting on the ground with a tow-truck backing up to take him away is perfect. It could only have been drawn by someone who has at least once forgotten to bring along enough chow and wondered if he would make it home.Smith says every rider has a “bonk” story and the memory of that misery is etched indelibly in his memory. He got that right! 20 years ago I was stuck 10 miles from home and came upon some tomatoes by the side of the road that a harvesting truck had spilled while going around a corner. Those were the best tomatoes I ever ate and they got me home.I’m not sure if it’s better that Smith and Mallett have shown that my own shaved-legged, loner, obsessive life isn’t all that rare or that I’m really in a looney bin with a bunch of other crazed people who can be spotted a mile away because of the odd tans that wearing bike clothing causes.In any case, get and read this book. I recommend it not only to those interested in the roadie (bicycle road racer) life. It is also a good refresher course for any racer on the ins and outs of cycling. And it’s funny as all get-out.
In 778 Charlemagne made an incursion over the Pyrenees into Spain. Needing to take his army to the Rhine to meet another challenge, he retreated, leaving a rearguard to protect his army as it withdrew. That rearguard, led by Count Hruodland (later known as Roland) was defeated at Roncesvalles.This episode gave us the legend of the brave Roland, who died blowing his horn to summon Charlemagne to return and rescue the overwhelmed soldiers. The story grew ever more elaborate with every retelling. In Italy Roland became Orlando. By the 1400s France and Italy nostalgically looked back on a lost world that never existed, the world of chivalry. Roland (or Orlando) figured largely in this literature that grew up about knights, ladies, dragons and magicians.The Italian poet Matteo Boiardo wrote his contribution to the Roland cycle, Orlando Innamorato (1495). Boiardo died before finishing the planned final third part of his poem.That brings us to Ludovico Ariosto who set out to finish Boiardo’s epic. Ariosto was a superior poet and his Orlando Furioso is a truly major work and an important part of the Western Canon. It is also the most Italian book I have ever read. The mix of magic, history, humor, irony all combine in a way that ends up feeling Italian, yet that I can’t exactly explain why. But anyone who has a close familiarity with Italian culture will understand what I mean. I can give an example. A brave knight saves the beautiful damsel. She offers herself as a reward. The brave knight then starts unbuckling his armor in order to collect his payment. Finally the lady grows bored with the laborious, time-consuming knightly undressing and wanders off. This irreverent original twist on an old story, done with a sly smile is pure Ariosto and pure Italy. Ariosto is not only a good poet, he is a great storyteller. Because of this Orlando Furioso becomes a wonderful book in Guido Waldman’s prose translation. I have rarely found translations of poetry to be satisfactory. As one man said, you can translate the words, but who can translate the music?It’s a shame this terrific book has slid off the modern reader’s radar. The Renaissance was more than pictures and statues. It was a complete rebirth of the western mind. Orlando Furioso is as important a work of art as Botticelli’s Primavera or Raphael’s School of Athens.It’s a big book. Give yourself some time to enjoy this burly, mirthful work. It’s worth it.
If you like your satire served with brilliant wit with a touch of irony and a side of righteous anger, then Anatole France (the pen name of Jacques Anatole François Thibault) is your writer. You can credit Anatole France, winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize in Literature, with the famous maxim: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”Penguin Island starts with a fantastic premise. A missionary, half blind, comes across the island of penguins and baptizes them. Up in heaven, confounded with this act, the Lord gives the birds souls and intellect. France then uses his new civilization to satirize almost anything within range of his scathing intellect. The book generally parallels the development of human civilization. The longest chapter, the story of Pyrot and the 80,000 Trusses of Hay is a blistering critique of the French government’s frame-up of Alfred Dreyfus. This chapter alone justifies the price of the book.For those who have come to this review through my Tour de France history or my cycling commentary, it should be noted that the Dreyfus Affair was the proximate cause of the creation of Tour de France.Anatole France is a genius. I heartily recommend this book.
I have had friends planning trips to Italy ask me for reading suggestions. “I Promessi Sposi” (The Betrothed) is always at the top of the list. For the reader seeking deeper knowledge of Italy this book serves a couple of purposes.First of all, like War and Peace, it is an historical novel with well-drawn characters inserted into an accurately described place and time. The novel takes place in Lombardy (the area in northern Italy surrounding Milan) between 1628 and 1631. It describes the story of Renzo and Lucia, and the extraordinary difficulties they encountered getting married. The centerpiece of the tale is the Great Plague of Milan, brought to northern Italy by French and German troops engaged in the 30-Years’ War. Manzoni’s description of the horrible conditions that descended upon Milan is riveting. I Promessi Sposi gives the reader great insight into the history and culture of post-renaissance Italy. Because the book is so good, one can absorb an enormous amount of history painlessly.Secondly, because this is truly the greatest Italian novel, all educated Italians are familiar with it. I can promise the reader who travels to Italy that he will surprise those he meets when he displays familiarity with this beloved and extremely Italian work. I remember discussing the book with several Italians while having dinner in a small village near Milan. I mentioned an episode in the book that I said had taken place near Lake Como.“Lecco!” I was instantly corrected. They all knew the book and my bonehead error was not allowed to pass.Intellectually a child of the French Enlightenment, Manzoni became a devout catholic and the book reflects his deeply felt religious beliefs. Don’t let his didacticism put you off. This is a beautiful book. One hundred years ago it was standard reading even in America, but sadly it is largely ignored here. Get a copy and let Manzoni take you back to another place and time. It’s an adventure you will enjoy.
Lance to LandisMidway through the third stage of the 1924 Tour de France, Henri Pélissier (winner of the 1923 Tour) abandoned. Journalist Albert Londres found him drinking hot chocolate at a train station restaurant. The interview Pélissier gave is still important. After explaining what the suffering racers endured he showed Londres the various pills and potions he took to both improve his performance and mitigate his misery. “We run on dynamite,” he said.Over the years the types of dynamite have changed. In the 1930s chemists synthesized amphetamines and racers soon learned how they could help and harm. Tom Simpson died in 1967 from the effects of dehydration, diarrhea and amphetamine overdose. In the 1970s, the overuse of corticoids nearly killed 2-time Tour winner Bernard Thévenet. When he went public with his misdeeds, explaining that his use of steroids was the usual practice in the peloton, he received abuse from his sponsor, the public and his fellow riders.In the 1990s EPO made doping necessary if a racer wanted to win. Riders like Marco Pantani and Bjarne Riis ran their hematocrits to a nearly lethal 60%. Any racer wishing to compete with these men and their like were forced to either stick the needle in their arms or retire. This is not just my guess. Many racers from that era (Andy Hampsten, for one) have gone public with how the sport was transformed by a drug that could dramatically improve a racer’s power output.Today, with a reliable test for EPO available, racers have gone on to new strategies, including old-fashioned blood doping. The best racers can spend over $100,000 a year on both the drugs and the technical expertise to avoid detection. Since this technology is so expensive, it is generally only the lower-paid lesser riders who get caught by dope tests.That brings us to Walsh’s book and the demand that he find a “smoking gun” before he levels any accusations. Smoking guns are almost impossible to find. In 1960, Tour de France doctor Pierre Dumas walked in on Gaston Nencini while he was calmly transfusing his own saved blood in his hotel room. That’s not going to happen today because what Nencini was doing to win the 1960 Tour was not illegal. Yet, Nencini was doing exactly what most doping experts think modern racers are doing, performing autologous (using their own saved blood for later injection) blood doping.I urge any person concerned with the obvious problem of rampant doping in sports to read this book. Walsh isn’t a sensationalist. He is a man who hates cheaters. This book is the result of his belief that Lance Armstrong, like almost all of the rest of the professional peloton, used banned performance-enhancing modalities. By necessity, he must build a circumstantial case, but that should not be a justification to reject his conclusions out of hand. I finished the book feeling that Walsh had had indeed made his case. An old, retired Italian pro with close connections to the racers of today once sat me down and explained much about doping. He concluded by saying, “Bill, they are all dirty.”I would have liked Walsh to organize his information a little better. Still, that didn’t keep this book from curling the hair on the back of my neck. Even those who fervently believe in Armstrong’s innocence will learn much about modern professional cycling from this book.